The drama of last Saturday’s Eastern A championship basketball game between Laurel and Miles City is history. Now the teams have turned their attention to the state tournament, which begins Thursday in Great Falls.
Still, the 39-38 thriller won by Laurel in the final frenetic moments remained a topic of conversation earlier this week
“Miles City had us beat,” said Laurel coach Pat Hansen. “One of the things we’ve been talking to our kids about is, ‘Are we disciplined enough defensively to win a game where we struggle to score?’
“I guess we got that opportunity to prove the point that we are. We were fortunate to get through it.”
The victory, made possible by Dylan Meccage’s late put-back and a couple defensive stops at the end, vaulted the Locomotives into their seventh consecutive state tournament.
Miles City coach Houston Finn said the disappointment of losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead lingered with his team -- “It took a day or two,” he said -- but that the focus has shifted as the Cowboys make their first state tourney appearance since 2003.
“You could see our confidence grow with each win at divisionals,” Finn said. “We were feeling pretty good about ourselves going in. We’d been pretty competitive in the last half of the year.
“Now we’re excited about going on to the next one. We feel good about being one of the last eight teams left.”
The Locomotives (18-2) play in the tournament opener Thursday at 12:30 p.m. against defending champion Stevensville. It’s a rematch of a semifinal game from last year’s state tournament, which the Yellowjackets won 52-49 en route to their first title.
Miles City, a surprise state tourney team, got some great big-game experience at divisionals. Brac Warren’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer lifted the Cowboys to a victory over Glendive in the semifinals, and 24 hours later they were on the verge of their first Eastern A title in 17 years.
The Cowboys (7-14) open Thursday at 6:30 against Dillon, a program that’s won three state championships since 2007.
Stevensville received a jolt at mid-season when last year’s state tournament MVP, forward Jesse Sims, transferred 15 miles south to rival Corvallis. Sims, a junior, didn’t play the remainder of the season due to MHSA transfer rules, but his departure left Stevi without a major component to its repeat hopes.
But with guard Jared Schultz and big man Zach Gavlak still in tow, the Yellowjackets (13-8) remain formidable.
Hansen said the 6-foot-1 Schultz might be the best guard in the state.
“And if he’s not, he’s dang close,” Hansen said.
Dillon has made three trips to the title game in the past five seasons, winning twice, and coach Terry Thomas’ team is in position to make another run. The Beavers (18-2) are led by Troy Scott, who averages better than 20 points per game.
“Obviously they’re a great program,” said Finn, now in his third season at Miles City. “They’ve got one of the best players in the state. We’re going to have to try to dictate the tempo. They like to get up and down (the court). We need to execute offensively and hopefully contain Troy Scott.”
In terms of players to watch, Havre’s Dane Warp ranks at the top of the list. Warp helped the Blue Ponies (7-13) to a state tournament berth by averaging 22.5 points at the Central A divisional last week.
Warp is Class A’s highest-scoring player, and he’s only a sophomore. Havre faces Northwestern A champion and perennial contender Columbia Falls (16-4) in the first round.
Starting in 2003, Columbia Falls has made six state title games, winning four of them. The Wildcats are coached, of course, by Cary Finberg.
Central division champion Belgrade (14-6) plays Polson (7-15) in Thursday’s first-round nightcap. Shiloh Christopher and Trevor Mahn are the leading scorers for Belgrade, which has won 12 of its past 14 games,
Polson won a Northwestern division challenge game over Whitefish on Monday to qualify for state.